Vernon Lee. Baldwin: Being Dialogues on Views and Aspirations. 2.5 (July, 1886): 207-209.




[Harvard Monthly 2.5 (July, 1886), 207]




Readers of Euphorion and Miss Brown, the two works by which Vernon Lee is most known in this country, have been looking forward with something like impatience through the past winter, to the publication of Baldwin. It was rumored that this Baldwin was to be something like a history of the friendship existing between the author and Walter Pater. The book is published at last; and the rumor, of course, was untrue. We hardly find trace of a character precisely such as Pater’s in the book. But many of our readers, probably, have not read Vernon Lee’s books at all, not even the two republished in this country. We gladly take this opportunity therefore to call the attention of our readers to Vernon Lee’s other books before we speak more particularly of Baldwin.


Our author’s first book, and, in many ways, her best was published some six years ago. It is a series of “Studies in the Eighteenth Century in Italy.” We may describe the book as an attempt to show that “during the eighteenth century, while all eyes were fixed upon other countries, Italy, insignificant and backward, developed to maturity the art germs which had remained dormant during her brilliant Middle Ages, and brilliant Renaissance.” The author shows that it was just in this age while all spontaneous art was crushed elsewhere; while “poetry in France and England, under Pope and Voltaire, was mere philosophy decked out in Dresden china pastoral furbelows,” that Italy developed a national drama, and music, last and greatest of the arts. We cannot express how delighted we were with this book. Here is a broadness of sweep, a penetration into the mysteries of evolution in art, a familiarity with each and every detail of her subject, be it in literature, the plastic arts, or music, and a charm of treatment withal, truly exquisite. The book is a marvel of aesthetic criticism. It does not fill us with a critic’s private opinions on matters of art. [208] The author really adds to our knowledge and appreciation of art, and thus merits all but the honors of an originator and creator.


In Belsaro, the second of Vernon Lee’s published books we find treatment of subjects of utmost importance to students of art and literature. In the first essay an attempt is made to deduce from a concrete instance the Niobe group, an accurate definition of a work of art. A work of art is the embodiment of a conception, our author says. Her results on the whole are the same as the canons given by Mr. Waldstein in his Essay on the Art of Pheideas. We wish we had time to speak of each separate essay in Belsaro. The book is much lighter in tone, but, if anything, yet more readable than the earlier one. There are scattered through it charming bits of autobiography, and pages of wonderful description.


Vernon Lee’s studies in the eighteenth century led her to embody certain haunting figures of that time in an idyl. Ottilie, an Eighteenth Century Idyl, is a description of German life in the latter part of the last century. As an idyl it is a happy cross between the too easy, and too pastoral French idyl, and the too heavy and altogether too domestic German idyl. There are one or two touches, somewhat too psychological. Otherwise there surely are no faults to be found.


Of Miss Brown we can say but a word. It is a novel, describing “aesthetes” and “aesthetic life,” so called, on the Continent, and in England. It is not so well written. It is not quite a work of art. Although the author shows great dramatic talent, and power of conceiving and portraying a situation, the book is quite spoiled. A novel especially cannot be a work of art and Tendenzbuch at the same time.


Euphorion is a series of studies in the literature and art of the Renaissance. The author here is not so much at home. She knows her subject well enough; knows it so well, that we almost blush to find fault with her; but she is not in sympathy with it. She has not penetrated into the very heart of the Middle Ages. In this book we find much of the polemic attitude of Miss Brown. Furthermore it is very unequally written. Following pages of marvelous descriptions, are pages of English that a school-boy might correct. The style as a whole is altogether too diffuse. There is too much mere description. But the book is infinitely suggestive, just because we agree so little with many of the author’s criticisms and conclusions; and, furthermore, because our senses are at times pricked by phrases keenly pungent—purposely such, we imagine.


We have space for a few words only on Baldwin. The author in this book treats of things which in her other works she has touched in passing, only. She says in Belsaro:—“We yearn to penetrate through the blue of [209] the summer evening, to thread our way among the sun-gilded clouds; yet the blue heaven if we rise into it, is mere tintless air; the clouds, if we can touch them, are mere dull vapor.” How wonderfully this passage applies to our author herself! We must say we see no special reason why a person of her exquisite taste and discrimination in art, should lose herself in the various fog-banks of metaphysics, theology, and economics. Even the more literary essays as those on “The Novel,” and on the “Value of our Ideal,” have sucked in a great deal of the fogginess of their neighbor essays. The book is much better written than Euphorion, but not as well as Belsaro. There is a little too much description. But this book also is wonderfully suggestive. The mere title of the last dialogue is enough to attract one: “On Doubts and Pessimism.” The introduction is of most interest to us, and contrary to the author, and “The Academy,” we advise our readers to read it first, instead of last.